A little friend of mine had a big adventure last week: she went with her mother and father to a tropical island north of Australia. She travelled on a plane for the first time and is now a veteran of four flights. Each time the aircraft lifted off the ground my little friend cried ‘Wheeee’.
I have much to learn from this brave little girl.
Unfortunately, however, not everything worked out as planned. On the second evening of the eight-day holiday she fell and broke her collar bone.
Mummy and Daddy were, naturally, distraught and their family back home saddened to hear the holiday was spoiled. After receiving excellent help from the resort staff and advice from the local medical centre the family wisely chose to remain on the island resort and make the best of the situation.
Now, travelling with a three-year-old has its challenges, even with a three-year-old who loves, from the first moment, to fly. This holiday had, after the accident, more than the usual difficulties. Swimming in the pool or on the beach was out of the question. The excursion to the Great Barrier Reef was likewise cancelled; they couldn’t risk her overbalancing in the boat. Walking along the beach was fairly safe and there was a child’s activity room, but for a lot of the time the parents were faced with amusing a three-year-old while trying to contain her natural ebullience and help her understand that the sling compromised her balance and her ability to do things for herself. As any one who has had anything to do with a three-year-old knows, they have to do everything for themselves.
The result, sadly, was a frustrated little girl and a several days of temper tantrums.
Don’t get me wrong, this child is not a little angel; she has her moments. But these were serious, ear-splitting, toy throwing, hitting out, refusing to go to bed, refusing to do anything she was asked, tantrums.
Her parents are gentle, reasonable, perceptive people. This child is neither spoiled nor indulged and whatever discipline is needed is always explained, measured and reasoned. But Mummy and Daddy desperately needed a holiday, and their dream of a few blissful days with their little girl was ruined by the pain and grief of their thwarted expectations.
I’m not saying they didn’t handle it well, they did, but I could see the strain and exhaustion on all three faces when we picked them up from the airport last night.
How I wished I could have wrapped them in my arms and made it all go away.
I’ve thought a lot about what turned this usually affectionate and happy little girl into the monster her mother described to me as we trudged towards the carpark through Adelaide’s cold night.
Maybe it was the excitement of the trip, the anticipation and then the letdown of the accident and injury. Maybe it was the pain killers. As mild as they were, having to take them over several days can affect anyone, particularly a child. Maybe it was the unfamiliar situation. When we’re feeling poorly, we need the comforts of our home and our familiar toys. Perhaps it was the shock and pain occasioned by the fall; my little friend woke screaming several nights after the accident. Maybe it was a combination of all these things?
And maybe it was just raw fear. I’m no child psychologist (which is amazing, because any woman who’s raised three children is, of course, an expert on children), so I consulted Dr Google – specifically concerning children who hit out during temper tantrums. My intuition was confirmed.
We usually lash out at others when we are afraid. It’s part of the classic freeze, flight or fight reaction that comes from deep within what neurologists call our reptilian brain, an ancient section of the brain that controls our heart rate, breathing, body temperature and balance. The thing about three-year-olds (and most humans), is no matter how articulate, how well parented or how well behaved they are, fear inevitably triggers survival instincts and that results in defensive behaviour, in hitting out at others. There’s no irony in the fact that we often hit out at those we love, at those who hold our very survival in their hands, because we trust them to understand, without reacting negatively, our instinctive, automatic ferocity.
My little friend is probably one of the luckiest people I know. In her terror and pain she hit out at the very people she knew would cope with her behaviour. Her parents, despite being stressed themselves, found a way to understand, witness and try to soothe their frightened little girl’s inarticulate rage.
Not all girls or boys are so lucky.
I held back tears last night when I watched the exhausted father walking from the plane, holding his sleepy eyed baby in his arms. Their flights home were delayed and they’d spent the last 12 hours either waiting in airports or flying, but there she was, snuggled close to her Daddy, smiling at my partner and me, waving tentatively at us with her free hand.
Is this story a caution against travelling with children? Far from it. Accidents happen, tempers flare and misunderstandings occur wherever we are in the world. When I think of that couple alone in their resort room, relying on the goodwill of staff when the accident happened, and later receiving calls from concerned parents and grandparents across the width and breadth of Australia, I am reminded of how important family is, how we reach out to each other during times of travail and stress. This happens on a small scale, like it did this week with my family, but it also happens on a large scale.
We’ve learned, in the last dozen or so years, that there is but one race of humans and we came from the same mother. We are a very large, rambunctious, sometimes violent family and that violence usually comes from raw fear, from the ancient section of our brain that reacts first and thinks later.
My little friend is going to grow up to be an amazing woman. She will gradually learn to moderate her reactions, to articulate her fears, to be mindful of her thoughts and, given the way her parents are raising her, to be compassionate when she witnesses another’s fear, another’s pain.
She may even change the world; she may find a way to end the fear that animates violence, because that’s the blessed potential of every child on the planet.